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Computer Glitch Leaves Thousands Of Veterans Waiting On Education, Housing Payments

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

The computer glitch at the Department of Veterans Affairs has left thousands of vets struggling to pay their bills. The problem is at the VA's benefit processing center, and it's holding up GI Bill checks for education and housing assistance. Members of Congress are demanding to know when the VA will be able to send out correct payments. NPR's Quil Lawrence is covering this story and joins me now.

Hi, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hi, Lakshmi.

SINGH: Well, how many veterans are affected in this? How much money are we talking about here?

LAWRENCE: So the new - what's called the Forever GI Bill, which was passed in the spring, allotted $3 billion over the next 10 years for GI Bill. The VA says there are about 70,000 vets who are in the queue. That doesn't mean that they've all been waiting too long. But there are 10,000 vets who are between 30 and 60 days late. The VA says they've been spending millions in overtime and consultants to try and fix this.

SINGH: What's the nature of this problem?

LAWRENCE: Well, essentially, they passed a new GI Bill with a more sophisticated calculus of how people should be paid. And the computer system at the VA is 50 years old, and it couldn't handle it. This was predicted that it wouldn't be able to handle this.

SINGH: Is this causing real hardship?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, it is. I mean, it's mostly anecdotal at this point, but there are a lot of vets who are getting their checks late, or they're coming in under what they should be - which, if you're on a tight budget, and you're depending on the VA stipend to pay for your housing, you might not make the rent. If you don't get the check in time, you might not make enrollment for your courses in the spring. If you're not in good standing, the university won't let you enroll.

So there has been a bill passed in the house to protect students with the GI Bill, but that bill is stuck in the Senate. That would make it so that you couldn't - that universities wouldn't throw people out just because their check hadn't arrived or their check was a little late.

SINGH: The House Veterans Affairs Committee heard testimony this past week. What was the outcome of that?

LAWRENCE: Well, it got quite tense. The VA basically said that they had missed the deadline that they told Congress they're going to fix by. And the under secretary for veterans benefits, Paul Lawrence, said that it'd just be better if they didn't set another deadline. And Democrat Beto O'Rourke responded to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BETO O'ROURKE: Just because you all missed the last deadline, even though we met with you two weeks before that deadline where I think you could have shown a little bit more candor, doesn't mean that you don't get to have a deadline going forward. That's a recipe for disaster if I've ever heard one.

SINGH: Quil, is this a partisan issue?

LAWRENCE: It's not really. I mean, the Veterans Affairs Committees on the Hill are quite bipartisan. They've been clashing a little bit with the White House at times, including over this issue. As the hearing went on, the press reports came in that the VA executive in charge of GI Bill, Paul Worley (ph), was being reassigned to Houston. And it raised some questions about who was going to be held accountable for this. And Republican Mike Coffman was very direct about how he felt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE COFFMAN: This administration, the Trump administration, promised to clean up the culture of bureaucratic incompetence inside the VA. And, based on this testimony today and other hearings we've had, I don't think they've made a lick of difference.

LAWRENCE: So, I mean, the VA is facing some really Herculean labors in the next year - sort of very complicated major restructuring. And lawmakers are concerned that those efforts are behind, and they aren't getting the accountability they need.

SINGH: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

Thanks very much, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Lakshmi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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